Saturday, February 7, 2009

Producer’s Track Record as a Label Executive Is Raising Questions

Published: February 6, 2009

Less than two years after Sony Music Entertainment made a daring move by hiring the legendary music producer Rick Rubin to run its Columbia Records label, the company is learning a lesson from baseball: sometimes the best players don’t make the best managers.
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Rick Rubin

Sony hired Mr. Rubin — a founder of Def Jam Records who has produced hits for Run-DMC, the Beastie Boys, the Red Hot Chili Peppers and Johnny Cash — hoping the appointment would lead to a new business model for the struggling record business.

Mr. Rubin has continued his run as a hit producer, for acts within Sony and on other labels, including Warner Music, where he produced a hit Metallica album last year. But Mr. Rubin, in the words of his close friend, the hip-hop mogul and philanthropist Russell Simmons, “likes to work at his own pace,” and it appears he has done little so far to lift Columbia out of the doldrums that is the contemporary music business.

In recent weeks, as several executives at Columbia who were closely aligned with Mr. Rubin have left the label, questions have surfaced about Mr. Rubin’s continued executive role there, and about how much influence he has in the company’s business operations.

Associates of Mr. Rubin, some of whom spoke anonymously because they did not want to anger him, described the situation as one in which Mr. Rubin has steadily lost influence over the organization because his style is so different from that of the usual executive and because he is often absent from the corporate offices. The impression from these interviews is of a power game within Columbia in which Mr. Rubin refuses to participate.

Mr. Simmons, who in the early 1980s stayed in Mr. Rubin’s New York University dorm room while the pair built Def Jam, the legendary hip-hop label, said he had been surprised when Mr. Rubin took the executive role at Columbia. He described Mr. Rubin as “laid-back, calm, sweet, a meditator” and someone who is “not in a race for life.”

He added, “I don’t know what his role is” at Columbia.

Mr. Rubin, through his spokeswoman, declined comment. In an e-mail message, Heidi Ellen Robinson-Fitzgerald, his longtime publicist, referred to “misconceptions and false gossip that have been running rampant of late” in the music industry concerning Mr. Rubin.

From the outset his hiring was an eyebrow-raiser for some in the industry because Mr. Rubin, with his New Age affectations — his long beard, bare feet and Buddhist beads — and abhorrence of all things corporate, appeared miscast in an executive role. At the same time Sony was establishing a power-sharing arrangement of the sort that rarely works in big business, much less in the music industry, with its egos, glamour and rollicking culture.

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